Following are some common truths that apply to pre- and post-workout nutrition, as well as hydration and sleep. All of which are important while training and racing.
Don’t Skip the Carbs
Carbohydrates are fuel for your “engine” (i.e., your muscles). And, the harder your engine is working, the more carbs you need to keep going.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s best not to eat immediately before a workout because while your muscles are trying to do their “thing,” your stomach is trying to simultaneously digest the food in your stomach. These competing demands are a challenge for optimal performance. And, even more of a factor, eating too close to a workout may cause you to experience some GI discomfort while you train.
Ideally, you should fuel your body about 1 to 3 hours pre-workout, depending on how your body tolerates food. Experiment and see what time frame works best for your body. This is something you need to explore during your training days and not during race day.
Suggestions for pre-workout fuel:
- A peanut butter and banana, or peanut butter and jelly sandwich
- Greek yogurt with berries
- Oatmeal with low-fat milk and fruit
- Apple and peanut or almond butter
- Handful of nuts and raisins (two parts raisins, one part nuts)
- Cereal with low fat milk
Notice that each of these suggestions include some protein as well as carbs. Carbs are the fuel. Protein is what rebuilds and repairs, but also “primes the pump” to make the right amino acids available for your muscles. Getting protein and carbs into your system is even more vital post workout.
In general, runners need to add in 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate each hour they’re running longer than 75 minutes. But you’ll need to start fueling earlier than 75 minutes into a run; by that time, your tank will be empty, and once you hit empty it’s very hard to recover. Start taking in fuel within 30 minutes of hitting the pavement. Start slow; you need to train your gut (and your palate) to handle fuel on the run. If you’re new to fueling on the run, take in a little bit of fuel every 15 minutes. Be sure to follow your fuel with water. Your stomach can only tolerate a certain percentage of carbohydrate so you need to dilute your fuel in order for it to go into circulation (rather than sit like a stone in your gut).
Your body uses stored energy (glycogen) in your muscles to power through your workout or race, but after that workout, you need to replenish the nutrients lost.
As soon as possible post-workout, get carbs and protein immediately into your body. This gives your muscles the ability to replenish the glycogen they just lost through training and helps your tired muscles rebuild and repair with the available protein and amino acids. Try to eat within 20 minutes of completing an intense workout.
Post-workout meals include:
- Post-workout recovery smoothie (or post-workout smoothie made with low-fat milk and fruit)
- Low-fat chocolate milk
- Turkey on a whole-grain wrap with veggies
- Yogurt with berries
The above offer mainly carbs, some protein, and are convenient — with the first two liquid options also helping to rehydrate the body.
It’s important to make sure you get the right amount of water before, during, and after exercise. Water regulates your body temperature and lubricates your joints. It also helps transport nutrients to give you energy and keep you healthy. If you’re not properly hydrated, your body can’t perform at its highest level. You may experience fatigue, muscle cramps, dizziness, or more serious symptoms.
A simple way to make sure you’re staying properly hydrated is to check your urine. If your urine is consistently colorless or light yellow, you’re most likely staying well hydrated. Dark yellow or amber-colored urine is a sign of dehydration.
There are no exact rules for how much water to drink while exercising because everyone is different. You need to consider factors including your sweat rate, the heat and humidity in your environment, and how long and hard you are exercising.
The American Council on Exercise suggests the following basic guidelines for drinking water before, during, and after exercise:
- Drink 17-20 ounces of water two to three hours before you start exercising
- Drink 8 ounces of water 20 to 30 minutes before you start exercising or during your warm-up
- Drink 7-10 ounces of water every 10 to 20 minutes during exercise
- Drink 8 ounces of water no more than 30 minutes after you exercise
In terms of sleep, aim for at least eight hours of quality sleep a night. The majority of recovery happens when we sleep. If you want to recover well, sleep well. It’s that simple.
- Your body needs carbs to fuel your working muscles.
- Protein is there to help build and repair.
- Get a combination of protein and carbs in your body 1 to 3 hours pre-workout, and within approximately 20 minutes post-workout.
- You need to train your gut to handle fuel on the run.
- Stay hydrated all day, every day.
- Recovery happens when we sleep.
What’s the best way to fuel for the Boston Marathon?
Should I eat a high fat diet to train my body to burn more fat and less glucose?
What percent of calories should come from carbohydrate? protein? fat?
When it comes to eating for endurance, today’s athletes are confronted with two opposing views:
- Eat a traditional carbohydrate-based sports diet, or
- Eat a fat-based diet that severely limits carbohydrate intake.
What should an eager marathoner, Ironman triathlete, or other endurance athlete eat to perform better? Here’s what you want to know about eating for endurance, based on the Joint Position Statement on Nutrition for Athletic Performance from the American College of Sports Medicine, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietietics, and Dietitians of Canada.
- Eat enough calories.
Most athletes need ~21 calories per pound (45 cal/kg) of lean body mass (LBM). That means, if you weigh 150 pounds and have 10% body fat, your LBM is 135 pounds and you require about 2,800 calories a day. That said, energy needs vary from person to person, depending on how fidgety you are, how much you sit in front of a computer, how much muscle you have, etc. Hence, your body is actually your best calorie counter—more accurate than any formula or app!
If you eat intuitively—that is, you eat when you feel hunger and stop when feel content, you are likely eating enough. If you find yourself stopping eating just because you think you should, if you are feeling hungry all the time and are losing weight, you want to eat larger portions. Under-fueling is a needless way to hurt your performance.
If you can’t tell when enough food is enough, wait 10 to 20 minutes after eating and then, mindfully ask yourself “Does my body need more fuel?” Athletes who routinely stop eating just because they have finished their packet of oatmeal (or other pre-portioned allotment) can easily be under-fueled. Even dieting athletes want to surround their workouts with fuel. Their plan should be to eat enough during the day to fuel-up and refuel from workouts, and then eat just a little bit less at the end of the day, to lose weight when they are sleeping.
- Eat enough carbohydrates.
According to the Position Statement on Nutrition for Athletic Performance, the optimal amount of carbohydrate on a day with one hour of training is 5 to 7 grams carb/kg. On high volume days, you need about 6 to 12 g carb/kg body weight. For a 150-pound (68 kg) athlete, this comes to about 350 to 800 grams carb a day—the equivalent of about one to two (1-lb) boxes of uncooked pasta (1,400 to 3,200 calories). That’s more than many of today’s (carb-phobic) athletes consume. You want to make grains the foundation of each meal: choose more oatmeal for breakfast; more sandwiches at lunch; and more rice at dinner to get three times more calories from carbs than from protein. Otherwise, you set the stage for needless fatigue.
- Eat adequate—but not excess—protein.
Protein needs for athletes range from 1.4 g/kg (for mature athletes) to 2.0 g protein/kg (for athletes building muscle or dieting to lose fat). For a 150-pound (68 kg) athlete, protein needs come to about 95 to 135 grams protein per day, or 25 to 35 grams protein four times a day. That means 3 eggs at breakfast (with the bowl of oatmeal), a hearty sandwich at lunch, portion of lean meat/fish/chicken at dinner, and cottage cheese (with fruit) for an afternoon or bedtime snack.
For vegetarians, generous servings of beans, hummus, nuts and tofu at every meal can do the job; a light sprinkling of beans on a lunchtime salad will not. By consuming protein every 3 to 5 hours, you will optimize muscle building and deter muscle breakdown.
- Fill in the calorie-gap with fat.
Include in each meal and snack some health-promoting, anti-inflammatory fat: nuts, salmon, peanut butter, avocado, olive oil, etc. Fat adds flavor, offers satiety, and is a source of fuel for endurance exercise. Training your muscles to burn more fat for fuel happens when you do long, steady “fat burning” exercise. By burning more fat, you burn less of the limited carbohydrate (muscle glycogen, blood glucose) stores. You will have greater endurance and avoid or delay hitting the wall.
A (tougher) way to train your body to burn more fat is to severely limit your carbohydrate intake and push your fat intake to 70% of your calories. That could be 1,800 calories (185 g) of fat per day. This very high fat diet produces ketones and forces the body to burn ketones for fuel. Keto-athletes endure a tough, 3- to 4-week adaptation period as their bodies transition to burning fat, not glucose, for fuel. While some keto-athletes rave about how great they feel when in ketosis, the sports nutrition literature, to date, reports little or no performance benefits from a ketogenic sports diet. It might nix sugar binges, but it’s unlikely to make you a better athlete.
- Drink enough fluids.
A simple way to determine if you are drinking enough fluid is to monitor your urine. You should be voiding dilute, light colored urine every 2 to 4 hours. (Exception: athletes who take vitamin supplements tend to have dark colored urine.) You want to learn your sweat rate, so you can strategize how to prevent dehydration. Weigh yourself nude before and after one hour of race-pace exercise, during which you drink nothing. A one-pound drop pre- to post-exercise equates to 16 ounces of sweat loss. Losing two pounds of sweat in an hour equates to 32 ounces (1 quart). To prevent that loss, you should target drinking 8 ounces of water or sports drink every 15 minutes. Athletes who pre-plan their fluid intake tend to hydrate better than those who “wing it.”
- Consume enough calories during extended exercise.
If you will be exercising for longer than 60 to 90 minutes, you want to target 40 to 80 calories (10 to 20 g) of carbohydrate every 20 minutes (120 to 240 calories per hour), starting after the first hour (which gets fueled by your pre-exercise food). If you are an Ironman triathlete, long distance cyclist or ultra-athlete who exercises for more than three hours, you want to target up to 360 calories per hour. The key is to practice event-day fueling during the months that lead up to the event. By training your gut to tolerate the fuel, you’ll be able to enjoy the event without fretting about running out of energy.
The bottom line:
If you are going to train, you might as well get the most out of your workouts. Performance improves with a good fueling plan. Eat wisely and enjoy your high energy!
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for marathoners, cyclists and soccer players offer additional information. They are available at www.NancyClarkRD.com. For her popular online workshop, see www.NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.
Thomas, T at el. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2016; 116 (3):501-28